This year we asked 20 outdoor luminaries—from trail runners to CEOs to beloved authors—about the trails they dream about. Here are their picks for the world's best hikes. Ready for adventure? —Doug Schnitzspahn
Tour du Mont Blanc, France, Italy, and Switzerland
Photograph by Dan Patitucci
Hiker: Topher Gaylord, ultrarunner and president of Mountain Hardwear
In His Words
Circling Mont Blanc—the rooftop of Western Europe—is one of the most special hiking experiences in the world. You travel through three different countries (France, Italy, Switzerland) and over several mountain passes with some of Europe’s most dramatic glaciers on display. You can soak it in and take your time over seven to ten days or fast pack in three days. No matter how you choose to do it, it is an adventure of a lifetime! —Topher Gaylord
Length: 104 miles
The Details: The most famed long-distance walk in the Alps circumnavigates the massif of the highest peak in the range. The 15,781-foot mountain is always there, looming above, but the trail itself is constantly changing. It dips down into seven different valleys in three different countries and tops out twice at 8,743 feet atop the Col des Fours, France, and the Fenêtre d'Arpette, Switzerland. It rambles along hair-raising sections of exposed rock as well as wildflower-choked meadows as it takes walkers back around the classic start and end point in Chamonix, France.
But it’s the civilization in between that really makes the trail special—you won’t have to worry about carrying a tent or even food here (which makes the trail an easier possibility for kids and older hikers, too). Stop at villages or huts along the way to gorge yourself with fondue, wine, slices of local cheeses, and homemade bread—then keep walking to work it all off.
You can pitch a tent if you choose, but there are plenty of options for a bed at night, ranging from high-end hotels in a resort town such as Courmayeur, Italy, to a bed in one of the cozy refuges up high. The walk normally takes about ten days, though it’s worth taking it slow and making side trips, including a climb of Mont Blanc itself, most often begun from Saint-Gervais-les-Bains or Chamonix. Or you can be like Gaylord and run the 100-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc race in just over 24 hours.
When to Go: Summer, when huts are open and snow won’t block paths
About Gaylord: There are two, equally successful sides to Topher Gaylord. First, he is the top executive at Mountain Hardwear, an outdoor brand now owned by Columbia Sportswear that manufactures technical outerwear, tents, packs, and sleeping bags and has long been associated with authenticity in the outdoor space. Before that he ran an even larger operation, serving as the president of VF Corporation’s Outdoor and Action Sports International brands, which included the North Face, Jansport, Vans, and Reef. But don’t think he’s a stuffy executive planted in an office chair—Gaylord can also pound out adventures with his brand’s athletes. The accomplished skier, climber, and windsurfer is also a top ultrarunner. He came in second in the first North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in 2003, which he has run eight times since, and has been a top finisher in major races including the nefarious Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, the Miwok 100K Trail Race, and Dick Collins Firetrails 50.
Sierra High Route, California
Photograph by Corey Rich, Aurora Photos/Alamy
Hiker: Andrew Skurka, long-distance hiking champ, guide, and writer
In His Words
The John Muir Trail is an overcrowded highway, and it too often goes low when the best terrain is almost always high. The Sierra High Route is not necessarily more stunning than the other big trails/routes I've done, but it's certainly more concentrated, putting the effort- and time-to-reward ratios off the charts. While the Colorado Rockies may be home for me, the High Sierra is the most majestic and rugged mountain range in the Lower 48. —Andrew Skurka
Length: 195 miles
The Details: Unlike Skurka’s biggest accomplishments, the Sierra High Route is within reach for mere mortals, while still a big challenge and major accomplishment. The route is similar to the John Muir Trail (JMT), but, well, higher, and it’s not a marked or maintained trail like the JMT. It cuts south-north through the heart of California’s High Sierra—starting in Kings Canyon National Park and passing through the John Muir Wilderness and Ansel Adams Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest and Devils Postpile National Monument, as well as Yosemite National Park, before ending in the Hoover Wilderness—and more than half of it is off-trail, scrambling over peaks and ridgelines and requiring savvy route-finding skills.
Most hikers knock off the route in several separate trips on its five segments (though Skurka did it, along with ultrarunner Buzz Burrell, in just eight days, four hours) since the exposed travel at 9,000-12,000 feet that it requires is strenuous and subject to the whims of mountain weather.
When to Go: Summer or early fall, when the snows have melted and before they begin again
About Skurka: Andrew Skurka is one of the few people on this planet who can lay claim to the job description of professional hiker. In 2005, Skurka completed the 7,778-mile Sea-to-Sea Route, starting at Quebec’s Cape Gaspé and ending at Cape Alava in Olympic National Park, Washington, and piecing together the International Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trail, Long Trail, North Country Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Northwest Trail. In 2007, the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year became the first (and, um, only) person to tick off the Great Western Loop—a 6,875-mile multiplex of a trail that links the Pacific Crest Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail, and Arizona Trail. He completed it in just 208 days.
The author of The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide (National Geographic Books, 2012), Skurka shares the knowledge he acquired on these trips through guided outings on which he teaches the skills required to cover long distances on the quick.
Laugavegurinn/Fimmvörðuháls Pass, Iceland
Photograph by Jennifer Pharr Davis
Hiker: Jennifer Pharr Davis, long-distance hiker and author
In Her Words
I am trying not to daydream too much about un-hiked trails with a six-month-old at home. But the one trail I have done that I put at the top of my list is Laugavegurinn in Iceland. This 50-mile trail is stunning in every respect and packs in more variety in 50 miles than most trails offer in 500. By starting at Skógar and hiking north, you pass 20 cascading waterfalls in the first seven miles. After reaching a barren mountain pass between two glaciers—one of which sits on top of the notorious Eyjafjallajökull volcano that stopped flights between the U.S. and Europe in 2010—you will descend into the valley of Thórsmörk. Translated as "the woods of Thor," this breathtaking valley was visited by J.R.R. Tolkien before he penned The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The landscape is believed to have inspired many of Tolkien's descriptions of Middle Earth. —Jennifer Pharr Davis
Length: 34 miles (50 miles with Skógar extension)
The Details: This four-day hike runs between the Landmannalaugar hut in the north and Thórsmörk park in the south, with an option to start or end at the stunning 200-foot-high Skógafoss waterfall (this 15-mile add-on is well worth it).
Few hikes offer the pure wilderness experience of Laugavegurinn, which wanders through otherworldly volcanic landscapes, paired with stays at comfy huts each night. In between, there are steaming fumaroles, expanses of lichen-covered volcanic rocks, and stunning views of copper-colored rhyolite peaks.
Be sure to book bunks ahead of time though, because they fill up fast, though you can still tent camp outside the huts. Before you head to the trail, whether from Reykjavik or other locations, pay close attention to the bus schedule as the buses only run once or twice a day to/from Skógar and Landmannalaugar.
When to Go: Summer. The hut system opens in late June and closes in early September.
About Pharr Davis: Asheville, North Carolina-based Jennifer Pharr Davis covers a lot of ground in a hurry. The long-distance hiking champ walked all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes, setting a record for the fastest supported time for anyone to ever complete the famed trail. A 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, she also holds speed records on Vermont’s Long Trail and Australia’s Bibbulmun Track. Pharr Davis has thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, the Colorado Trail, Corsica’s GR20, and Scotland’s West Highland Way, among others. She is the author of the hiking memoirs Becoming Odyssa (Beaufort Books, 2011) and Called Again (Beaufort Books, 2013), which tells the story of her record-setting AT hike. She has slowed down just a bit this year to look after her new baby girl.
Te Araroa Trail, New Zealand
Photograph by Andy Belcher
Hiker: Dan Ransom, Filmmaker
In His Words
What puts the Te Araroa on the top of my dream list is the variety. New Zealand is famous for its diverse landscapes, and the Te Araroa links up close to 2,000 miles of coastal sand, alpine ridges, and jungle bushwhacks traversing through national parks, rural farmland, and past volcanoes. After bagging the Triple Crown of long trails in the U.S., the Te Araroa would be the obvious target for that next big thru-hike. —Dan Ransom
Distance: 1,894 miles
The Details: The Te Araroa, Maori for “The Long Pathway,” is aptly named. It traverses the entire country, from Cape Regina at the tip of the North Island to Bluff on the toe of the South Island.
Split into 160 tracks, the trail takes about 120 days to finish, if hikers stick to official recommendations (though ultrarunner Jez Bragg ticked it off in just 53 days in 2013) and requires a ferry ride to hop between the North and South Islands. Each of those sections is a wonder in itself. The bays of Queen Charlotte Track on the South Island can be a casual stroll in paradise. The river valleys of the North Island’s Whanganui National Park shelter centuries of Maori culture. The dark Takitimu Forest feels straight out of Middle Earth. The trail tromps over the slopes of the active Tongariro volcano and even runs through the metropolis of Auckland. Add to all that natural wonder a well-organized system of volunteers and caretakers spearheaded by the Te Araroa Trust, and you indeed have one of the best places for a long walk on the planet.
When to Go: October through April
About Ransom: Photographer and filmmaker Dan Ransom followed explorers Rich Rudow and Todd Martin down numerous technical first-descent slot canyons in the Grand Canyon to make the movie Last of the Great Unknown. During filming, he dropped to the ground, suffering from the effects of a brain tumor. Ransom recovered and the movie showed to rave reviews at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. He has returned to the Grand and other canyons, as well as enjoying long backpacking trips in Utah’s Uinta mountains. He’s currently a videographer and editor at Backcountry.com.
The Sir Samuel and Lady Florence Baker Historical Trail, South Sudan to Uganda
Photograph by Ocean, Corbis
Hiker: Julian Monroe Fisher, explorer, filmmaker, and anthropologist
In His Words
I am about to make one trail on my bucket list become a reality. In January-February 2013 we trekked into the bush country of Eastern Equatoria in the new nation of South Sudan. Starting in June 2013, we are establishing trail markers for a new trail that will run from Gondokora near Juba, South Sudan, to Baker’s View, overlooking Lake Albert, Uganda. The trail will follow the route Sir Samuel Baker and Lady Florence Baker followed during their expedition to Lake Albert in the 1860s. In 2014, we will launch a walking and mountain bike trail from Juba, South Sudan, to Baker’s View, Uganda. The fourteen stops will encompass spots along the route where the Bakers camped as they used exploration to abolish slavery. —Julian Monroe Fisher
Length: 360 miles
The Details: South Sudan was born in 2011, breaking away from Sudan in a nearly unanimous referendum. Independence has not solved all of the fledgling nation’s ills, however; the aftereffects of decades of civil war and military atrocities and ongoing fighting between the government and rebel groups make it one of the most dangerous and needy spots on the globe.
The hope is that the trail can play some small part in stabilizing the region, much as the Bakers hoped their 19th-century expedition could play a part in helping to end the horrors of the slave trade. Most of the trail goes through Uganda, which is relatively safe for hikers. A bit of danger is inherent in the history of the walk; Sir Samuel Baker himself was kidnapped on one of his expeditions.
Meticulously researched for historical accuracy, the trail begins in South Sudan’s current capital city of Juba and follows the Bakers’ routes along the White Nile into Uganda, ending at Baker’s View, the spot Fisher determined to be where Sir Samuel Baker first gazed out on Lake Albert and named it after Queen Victoria’s consort in 1864. Along the way, the trail follows the shores of Lake Albert and takes in wonders like the Victoria Nile’s Murchison Falls, a thunderous gush through a 20-foot-wide gap in a gorge with a 131-foot drop.
Fisher is in the process of establishing the trail now so that it can officially open to thru-hikers in January 2014, the 150th anniversary of when the Bakers first made the trek. Right now, Fisher’s markers show where current-day hikers can camp along the route in the same spots as the Bakers, though the trip requires expert logistical planning since it traverses spots that rarely see foreign visitors. The trail will also be open to adventure-hungry mountain bikers.
When to Go: Winter months will be best. You can be one of the first to make the trek in January 2014.
About Fisher: A TED Talks speaker and a flag-carrying member of the famed Explorers Club, Julian Monroe Fisher undertook a 345,000-mile trek from 1996 to 2003 that crossed Central America from Mexico to South America, Southeast Asia, Nepal, India, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East to Russia. He even summited Kilimanjaro on a seldom-used route.
Fisher’s expeditions across the planet have done far more than tick off feats of mega-trekking prowess, however—they are essential aspects of his ethnological and geographic research. His 2007 Colorado African expedition traced the 1928 to 1929 route of Hollywood cinematographer Paul Louis Hoefler. His 2009 to 2010 Katanga Province expeditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo will help establish the Bunkeya Cultural Village that will celebrate and share the culture of the Garanganze with the world and provide economic sustainability for the people. In 2011, Fisher walked coast-to-coast across Africa from Mozambique to Angola, and his 2012-16 RailRiders Great African Expedition will trace the long routes of Victorian explorers on the continent, comparing their documentation of native cultures with the current state of the African world.
Franconia Ridge Loop/Traverse, New Hampshire
Photograph by Michael Lanza
Hiker: Jonathan Waterman, author, photographer, adventurer, and activist
In His Words
The Franconia Ridge knife edge in New Hampshire is not technical—and I can think of many steeper knife-edge trails where a slip equals a quick ride to eternity. But once on top, if you catch the trail in isolation early or late in the year, its miniaturized flowers and intricately placed stone steps (to keep you from trampling the fragile flowers) offer a glimpse of alpine worlds otherwise found far away from the well-trammeled White Mountains. As a boy, I knew of no headier experience than this trail. —Jonathan Waterman
Length: About 9 miles
The Details: Yes, the trail is popular but, as Waterman points out, it also offers a chance to hike high in alpine tundra just a few hours from Fenway Park. Don’t be fooled by its close proximity to civilization, though—this walk in the sky gains elevation fast, climbing 3,480 feet in four miles.
Once on the famed knife ridge between 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette, 5,089-foot Mount Lincoln, and 4,760-foot Little Haystack, it serves up 1.7 miles of exposed hiking, which can be a radiant stroll in sunshine among alpine wildflowers or a harrowing retreat from lightning and whipping winds—all depending on the quickly shifting mood of the White Mountain weather.
There is some civilization on the route in the form of the Greenleaf Hut, which was built in 1930 by the still quite active Appalachian Mountain Club. All in all, the trail is a rite of passage for adventurers as well as one of the most iconic hikes in the Eastern U.S.
When to Go: Midweek in the fall, when the crowds have abated and the autumn foliage is peaking
About Waterman: Jonathan Waterman launched his adventure career as a ranger in Alaska's Denali National Park, writing about a climb of the peak in the dead of winter and a circumnavigation hike around the park. From there, he embarked on even larger adventures, such as paddling the Northwest Passage, which was recorded in the book Arctic Crossing (Lyons Press, 2002), and following the Colorado River from source to sea to document the sad state of the waterway along with photographer Pete McBride. That trip became two books (Running Dry and The Colorado River), a film, and a National Geographic wall map. Waterman's latest book is Northern Exposures: An Adventuring Career in Stories and Images (University of Alaska Press, 2013).
Pacific Crest Trail, California, Oregon, and Washington
Photograph by Lars Schneider, Aurora Photos
Hiker: Scott Jurek, ultrarunning champion
In His Words
Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail has been a lifelong dream. The sheer beauty and variety of the great Pacific mountain ranges along with the journey of a long thru-hike traversing the U.S. north to south has been the main allure. While I have many trails on my list all over the world, exploring my own country ranks highest. In fact, I am heading off today with my wife for a weeklong section hike of the PCT! —Scott Jurek
Length: 2,650 miles
The Details: Alongside the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) anchors the trifecta of big daddy thru-hikes in the United States. Each claims a distinct history, beauty, and province over a chunk of North American geography, but the PCT may be the most grand, running across the country via the heights of the lordly Sierra and Cascade ranges.
It’s no easy accomplishment to tick off in one attempt, requiring savvy logistics and resupply (especially when it comes to long stretches sans civilization), good luck with the weather, and fleet feet. The reward is a grand tour of seven national parks and a continent’s worth of national forests, state parks, and wilderness areas. On the journey, hikers tromp through the Mojave Desert, summit 13,153-foot Forester Pass between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, stride along in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, make their way into the volcanoes of the Cascades via Lassen Volcanic National Park, and end up in British Columbia’s E.C. Manning Provincial Park.
When to Go: Most hikers begin on the Mexican border in April and finish in October. The trick is to miss the spring snow in the Sierra and fall snow in the Cascades.
About Jurek: Scott Jurek is tough to beat. The ultrarunner has won most of the sport’s big events, including the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (seven times in a row from 1999 to 2005), Badwater Ultramarathon (twice), the Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run, Spartathon, and the Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco. He once held the U.S. record for distance run in 24 hours (167.5 miles!) and held course records at Western States and Badwater. He’s also a passionate vegan, which he claims improves his performance, overall health, bank account, and sheer enjoyment of food. In the book Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), he explains his plant-based philosophy and how it has made him a running machine.
Caribou Tracks, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
Photograph by Prisma Bildagentur, AG/Alamy
Hiker: Terry Tempest Williams, author and environmental activist
In Her Words
The trail I dream of walking? Any caribou trail in Gates of the Arctic National Park or Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I can hear their clicking ankles on the tundra, and I imagine walking behind them in silence in that vast expanse of wilderness. —Terry Tempest Williams
Length: The caribou migrate 120 to 400 miles
The Details: The northernmost park in the U.S., Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve covers 8.4 million acres in the Brooks Range just above the Arctic Circle. It has no trails and protects the habitat and migration routes essential to the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which has been declining but still numbers approximately 325,000 animals, making it the largest in Alaska. The 19.3-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Preserve (ANWR) is probably the most well known and hotly debated wilderness in the United States due to two natural resources it has in abundance—caribou and oil. ANWR is a massive place consisting of mountains, tundra, and coastline with few visitors, no trails, and a menagerie of Arctic wildlife.
The best known of those species is the caribou. Two herds live here and over the border in Canada: the Porcupine Herd (about 169,000 animals) and the smaller Central Arctic Herd (42,000). In spring, the Porcupine caribou come together to make their great migration to calving grounds hundreds of miles away on the coastal plain. The Porcupine herd leaves the coastal plain by mid-July, mostly to avoid hatching mosquitos, and begins to head into the foothills. In fall, they move en masse again, heading south into the Brooks Range and Yukon Territory. The Central Arctic Herd follows a slightly different route.
The conflict in ANWR is over 1.5 million acres of coastal plain, known also as 1002 Area. Not only is it the calving ground for the caribou, it’s also the site of one of what could be the largest known onshore oil and gas reserves in the United States. For now, the only activity here is from the thousands of caribou. It's possible to sign on with outfitters who will take you out to hike along with them as they make their migrations in Gates of the Arctic—which has no drilling conflict—or ANWR. It is one of the few great wildlife wonders left on the planet.
When to Go: Spring and fall, when the caribou undertake their great migrations
About Williams: Terry Tempest Williams has become more than an author. She is a voice for wild places, as well as the people and animals who inhabit them. Her book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (Vintage, 1992) typified that ethos, telling not just the story of a threatened Utah wildlife refuge but also of her mother’s cancer and fallout from nuclear testing. In Finding Beauty in a Broken World (Vintage, 2009), she deals with everything from prairie dogs to Italian mosaics to genocide. In Rwanda and in Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Vintage, 2002), she explores the solitude and sensuality of her native Colorado Plateau. Alongside her environmentalist husband Brooke Williams, she has fought for the survival of wild places in America and abroad, winning the Wilderness Society’s Robert Marshall Award, the Center of the American West’s Wallace Stegner Award, and the Community of Christ International Peace Award for her work.
Dosewallips to Lake Quinault, Olympic National Park, Washington
Photograph by Roberto Gerometta, Getty Images
Hiker: Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of the Interior and former CEO of REI
In Her Words
I first hiked this route at age 12 with a group of children and a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Black. My husband, daughter, and I did the hike two summers ago. The trail goes between a beautiful temperate rain forest and rhododendron grove near Hood Canal at sea level, through beautiful alpine meadows to the snowfields of Anderson Pass, and into Enchanted Valley—home to black bears and elk. It continues along rushing Graves Creek, flows into the Quinault River, and then pours into Lake Quinault. Be prepared for wildlife, wildflowers, history, serenity, and a comfortable, three-day backpack—with a bear canister for food, of course! —Sally Jewell
Length: 34 miles
Details: Few spots in the Lower 48 are as wild and isolated as Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Here, the Pacific slams into North America and the unrelenting weather keeps deep, wild rain forests and glacial peaks difficult to access. But this southern traverse of Olympic National Park is well worth the effort—and the extra waterproof/breathable gear—required to get a glimpse into the heart of the place.
The Enchanted Valley is an apt spot for the Secretary of the Interior to hold dear—it’s the type of pristine wilderness the National Park Service has been tasked with preserving. But it also offers a glimpse into history in the Enchanted Valley Chalet, a lodge from the 1930s that predated the designation of the park.
The untamed elements of the Olympics will often wash out the roads that get to its trailheads, so be sure to check road (and trail) conditions before you head out. Wilderness permits are required, too.
When to Go: It can rain anytime in the Olympics, but summer can be stunning. High-pressure systems in August and September make for glorious blue-sky days.
About Jewell: While American politics seem more partisan than ever, Sally Jewell pleases both sides of the aisle. The former CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) was quietly confirmed to the post of U.S. Secretary of the Interior by an overwhelming vote of 87 to 11 in the Senate this spring. Jewell has balanced experience in the oil and banking industries alongside conservation achievements that won her the National Audubon Society's Rachel Carson Award. One thing is for certain: Jewell plays hard in the wild—she's an experienced rock climber, mountaineer, skier, and paddler; in 2011 she made a trip up Antarctica’s Vinson Massif.
Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal
Photograph by R. Tyler Gross
Hiker: Jim Whittaker, mountaineer
In His Words
I would recommend the trek to Everest Base Camp to anybody. The people are incredible, the scenery can't be beat, and you get to take a look at Everest or Chomolungma, meaning the "Goddess Mother of the World." It's spectacular just to see the highest point on planet Earth. In 1963, it was a 185-mile trip. These days you can start by flying into to Lukla, a village at 9,000 feet with a slanted airstrip that makes for a hell of a takeoff and landing. In May, the rhododendrons are in bloom with orchids growing in them. There are guest houses on the way up. You can get a beer. There are waste baskets on the trail. They have done a nice job of cleaning it up. I made the trek to Everest Base Camp last year but had to turn back near the camp due to intestinal difficulties. I went ten years ago for the 40th anniversary of the climb with Gombu [Nawang Gombu Sherpa who summited with Whittaker in 1963] and our families. That is when my son Leif decided he wanted to climb it. Who knows, I might wander up there again. —Jim Whittaker
Length: About 40 miles
The Details: The two-week trek to Everest Base Camp and back has become increasingly popular—REI even runs a trip—but no less spectacular, if you don't mind how much the route and the now-bottlenecked climb to the summit have changed since 1963. And why not? It's a bucket list trip available to people who don't have the ability (or money, a guided trip to the top of the world runs around $50,000) to actually climb Everest. Simply viewing the peak is a must. And while so many books and films have focused on the trip from Base Camp to the summit, the journey to Base Camp is no less miraculous.
Beyond the chance to come face to face with the mountain from the spot where climbers begin their ascent, the route passes through the heart of the Khumbu region and wanders into its bustling, little capital, Namche Bazaar. Perched at 11,286 feet, this is where most trekkers spend a few days getting acclimatized and immersing themselves in the local culture—as well as returning to their own by checking email at an Internet cafe. From here, the trek heads up past smaller villages, like at 13,074-foot Pangboche, with its famed Buddhist monastery, before topping out at 17,650 feet at base camp, with the summit towering over 11,000 feet above.
Don't feel bad if climbers who are acclimatizing at Everest Base Camp seem to keep at a distance from you—they don't want to be exposed to germs from trekkers before making an attempt at the highest spot on planet Earth. And while many trekkers are quite content just looking at that summit, some others, like Leif Whittaker, feel the urge to return.
When to Go: Spring from March until the monsoons move in in May is best but September–November after the monsoon season can be beautiful as well, and a bit less crowded.
About Whittaker: Jim Whittaker became the first American to stand on the summit of Mount Everest on May 1, 1963, for which he and the members of his team were awarded National Geographic Society's Hubbard Medal and invited to the White House by President John F. Kennedy. Before he climbed to the top of the world, Whittaker was already a proficient mountaineer in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and like many climbing bums he worked in outdoor retail—he was the first full-time employee at Seattle's Recreation Equipment, Inc. (REI), and later its CEO. He also led the first successful American summit of 18,151-foot K2—the world's second highest mountain and a more difficult climb than Everest—in 1978 and the 1990 Everest Peace Climb, which included American, Soviet, and Chinese mountaineers and helped remove two tons of trash from the mountain. His son Leif followed in his father's footsteps, reaching the top of the world in 2010 and again in 2012 when Jim set out on the Base Camp trek with him.
Winter Tour, Bozeman, Montana, to Jackson, Wyoming
Photograph by David Schipper
Hiker: Conrad Anker, mountaineer and explorer
In His Words
My dream hike would actually be to ski from Bozeman to Jackson in early spring. I have long wanted to view the Yellowstone area from the comfort of skis and a sled. A traverse of the Yellowstone hot spot would be neat from a geological standpoint. —Conrad Anker
Length: Roughly 216 miles
The Details: Anker’s life-list trip takes in one of the wildest cores of public land in the continental United States, crossing Gallatin National Forest, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park. At the heart of the trip lies the Yellowstone hot spot, the massive supervolcano that’s the source of the park’s geothermal wonders and which has been exhibiting increasing activity over the past decade. The park is also the home to the continent's most charismatic megafauna—grizzly bears, wolves, bison, and wolverines—alongside herds of elk and mule deer.
It would take the type of expedition logistics that Anker has mastered over his career to pull it off, however. The route itself is not determined. Careful planning and calorie-and-nutrition counting would be a must. Snow conditions could range from deadly slab avalanches to grueling spring glop, depending on the finicky weather moods of the Northern Rockies. An easier but longer option would be to parallel U.S. 191 and then travel along the closed roads in Yellowstone. A more daring option would be to head into the high country behind Bozeman and make a direct traverse across the park.
Of course, it does not need to be a ski trip, although not needing a trail allows for more creative routes (and the opportunity for corn or powder snow turns). Existing trails, overland travel, bushwhacking, and scrambling could bring an intrepid summer hiker along the same journey. Permits are required to backcountry camp and travel in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
When to Go: Spring, when the avalanche conditions have stabilized and temperatures start to warm up
About Anker: Conrad Anker has reached that rare status of celebrity mountaineer. Since the 1980s, he has accumulated a list of daring ascents on every continent, spanning the gamut from big-wall rock climbs on Yosemite’s El Capitan to an expedition on Antarctica’s Rakekniven Peak, featured on the cover of National Geographic in a story by Jon Krakauer. In 1999, Anker touched history when he found the body of legendary mountaineer George Mallory, who had been missing since 1924, on Everest.
According to the North Face-sponsored climber and consultant, his crowning achievement came in 2011, when he, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk became the first to summit the difficult Shark’s Fin of 20,700-foot Meru in India’s Gharwal Himalaya. The climb had foiled Anker twice before and required a full palette of rock, ice, and alpine skills to pull off. Beyond that hard-core resume, Anker simply enjoys spending what time he can at his home in Bozeman, Montana, getting out in the Rockies with his wife and sons.
Urique-Batopilas Trail, Copper Canyon, Mexico
Photograph by Whit Richardson, Alamy
Hiker: Will Harlan, ultra-endurance runner and writer
In His Words
This route was the original ultra that Micah True (aka Caballo Blanco) ran with the Tarahumara before moving the race to the more accessible gravel roads of Urique. The trail climbs 5,000 feet from the desert floor to the forested canyon rim, crossing gurgling arroyos and offering literally breathtaking canyon vistas. The steep, quad-crushing descent down to the Batopilas River offers equally stunning scenery. The river-carved Copper Canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon but without a single trail sign or marker. I learned that lesson the hard way on my first hike, getting lost, drinking Giardia-infested water, and being held up by AK-47-wielding drug runners. —Will Harlan
Length: 30 miles
The Details: Yes, Copper Canyon is larger than the Grand Canyon, but it’s a bit of a misnomer—it’s a system of six major river-carved canyons in Chihuahua that include everything from pure wilderness to villages inhabited by the native Tarahumara people to a railroad running down in the middle of them.
This typically three-day trip—unless you are running like Micah True and Will Harlan—connects the two local communities of Urique, a sleepy town almost free of tourists, and Batopilas, a former silver mining hot spot that’s about a five-hour bus ride from the larger town of Creel. In between, the trail dips into the best of what these canyons have to offer: It winds through steep sandstone walls and past massive agave plants (as well as wandering near a ghost town and the occasional wild burro). As it grunts to the top of the canyon, the trail opens up for a view that has none of the busloads of gawkers and interpretive signage of the better known canyon across the border. You do need to be careful, both of the danger of bandits and, more likely, dehydration. Water is stunningly beautiful when it comes cascading into this desert—but stock up on it when you find it.
When to Go: Late fall (October-November) or early spring (March-April), when the temperatures don’t get too hot
About Harlan: In 2009, Will Harlan (aka El Chivo, "the goat") won the legendary Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco 50-mile race in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, an experience that is documented in the forthcoming film El Chivo. No gloating champion, his victory showed both his athletic prowess and a sensitivity and connection to the people who have lived in the canyons for centuries. The editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors, Harlan lives on a sustainable farm in North Carolina. He's also five-time champion of the 40-mile Mount Mitchell Challenge and holds the record for the fastest unsupported crossing of the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Snowman Trek, Bhutan
Photograph by Pete McBride
Hiker: Sally McCoy, CEO of CamelBak and Conservation Alliance board member
In Her Words
I have been obsessed with Bhutan since a National Geographic article I read when I was ten. I kept writing the king, volunteering for anything, including teaching basketball, since I knew he was a fan. I finally paid to go for the first time in 1988. Bhutan still feels remote. But I have never done the Snowman Trek, and it’s the one trail I most want to do someday. Two hundred tough miles with many passes in a country that carefully restricts access. Sounds great to me. —Sally McCoy
Length: More than 200 miles
The Details: Veteran trekkers peg the Snowman as the hardest trail on the planet, which makes it even more of a prize—perhaps even the top bucket list hike on the planet. Add to that the reality that most who start it don’t finish due to the unpredictability of weather in the high Himalaya and the sheer difficulty of the thing. Further complicating things, it’s only legal to do the trek with a guided tour company. That’s going to cost you close to $6,000, not to mention the $200 to $250 per day the government of Bhutan charges you for traveling in the country.
The trip takes at least 25 days to complete and traverses 11 passes, most more than 16,000 feet, including a high point of 17,388 feet on Rinchen Zoe La Pass. At the village of Thanza, you pick up yaks to navigate the mountains ahead. But it’s all of that difficulty that makes the thing so enjoyable.
A constitutional monarchy that is the last Buddhist kingdom on the planet, a place where Gross Domestic National Happiness is measured, and TV and Internet were banned until 1999, Bhutan is one of the cultures and landscapes least touched by global technology.
It doesn’t just still feel remote. It is remote, as remote as you can get on a swiftly shrinking planet. It is quickly changing, though, and only time will tell if that is better for both residents and visitors. Still, on the trail you will feel tossed back in time, in touch with the raw power of massive, little-known peaks such as 23,294-foot Zogophu Gamp and wandering into villages to take tea with the indigenous Layap people.
When to Go: April and October are the only monthlong windows when you can usually avoid the snows of winter and the rains of the summer monsoons.
About McCoy: Sally McCoy isn’t just one of the top businesspeople in the outdoor industry, she’s also one of its most important voices. The Chief Executive Officer of Camelbak—who was also the former Vice President at the North Face and President at Sierra Designs—was one of the founding members of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). OIA has overseen important moves like advocating against tariffs that hurt outdoor brands and has expanded the political power of the industry when it comes to influencing policy on public lands in the United States. McCoy is also the former chairwoman and current member of the board of the Conservation Alliance, which raises money from outdoor brands in order to fund grassroots environmental groups. In 2013, the Conservation Alliance plans to award $1.5 million to small, local groups battling to preserve land and water.
Kings Peak, Utah
Photograph by Lee Cohen, Corbis
Hiker: Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, climber, and activist
In His Words
Hard to say if it is the best trail I have ever hiked, but it's certainly a classic that I enjoy doing every few years—Kings Peak via Henrys Fork to Gunsight Pass to Anderson Pass with a scramble along the ridge to the summit. The country is sublime, big, and quintessentially western. It is a large, ascending open valley that is littered with lakes and ponds. The landscape couldn't be more beautiful, with stands of isolated timber, alpine meadows, and an array of Nirvana-like camp spots to be enjoyed far from the proximity of others. There is flowing water all the way to Anderson Pass, less than 1,000 feet below the spectacular, airy summit, and the view of the High Uintas Wilderness with its peaks, ridges, and valleys goes on as far as the eye can see. The trail that takes you just about to the summit of Utah’s highest peak is just two hours from Black Diamond’s front doors in Salt Lake City, yet it feels as if you are in the Flathead wilderness of northern Montana. The trip will be a biannual part of my life ... until my knees seize up. —Peter Metcalf
Length: 28.8 miles
The Details: Utah’s red rock canyonlands and powder-filled Wasatch Range get all the attention, while the quiet Uintas in the northeast corner of the state are where the locals slip away to play in the heat of summer. Made up mostly of sedimentary rocks, the 100-mile-long range runs east to west rather than north to south, like most ranges in the Rockies. It’s also home to the state’s highest peaks, formed when colliding tectonic plates pushed up primordial ocean bottom and basins filled with wildflowers and blue alpine lakes.
The tallest mountain in Utah, 13,528-foot Kings Peak is a fairly easy state high point to attain. The hardest part of the climb is the long approach from the Henrys Fork Campground, which includes 5,252 feet of elevation gain. Most hikers spend a night or two camped on the trail; Dollar Lake is the most popular spot to pitch a tent. It’s not a technical route, however, with a short, short steep scramble up a 1,000-foot chute at Gunsight Pass standing out as the only difficult bit and a long scramble to the summit offering wide-open views of the high peaks.
When to Go: September is best, when snows have melted and the weather has stabilized.
About Metcalf: Black Diamond equipment was founded in 1989 when Peter Metcalf, along with friends, customers, and other employees, bought Chouinard Equipment from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. Metcalf has kept the brand successful and dynamic: BD has remained at the top of the technical climbing gear game, turned into an award-winning freeski manufacturer, opened divisions in Switzerland and China, and acquired Gregory Mountain Products and POC. It went public in 2010, and acquired avalanche-safety manufacturer PIEPS last fall. But that success hasn’t watered down Black Diamond’s core climber credibility. Metcalf himself is an accomplished climber and former oil-field wildcatter who also has had the guts to take on the government in BD’s Utah home base when he disagrees with how the state wants to manage public lands where climbers roam.
Solomon Gulch Trail, Valdez, Alaska
Photograph by Shen Hong, Xinhua Press/Corbis
Hiker: Bear Grylls, survival expert
In His Words
Next time I find myself back in Alaska, I have my heart set on the Solomon Gulch Trail. It is a 2.5-hour hike taking in some of the most astonishing scenery that part of the world has to offer. One sets out from the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery on a steep ascent trail, weaving through the north-facing coastal spruce forest. The lush canopy is packed with a huge variety of wildlife. Watch out for the bears though! It is known to entail some fairly steep terrain with gravelly access roads (great for mountain biking), but it is without doubt the breathtaking views from the top, over the Port of Valdez, that truly make this worth it. To top it off, the hike takes you right up to the serene sights of Solomon Lake. Beat that for an all encompassing mini-adventure. —Bear Grylls
Length: 3.8 miles
The Details: Tucked into a majestic fjord, Alaska’s hardworking port town of Valdez is home to just the type of adventure that appeals to a man like Bear Grylls. It’s the base for heli-skiing operations, climbing guides, and other outdoor adventures in the surrounding Chugach Mountains, which get pounded with some of the heaviest snowfall on the North American continent. But the Salomon Gulch Trail is a hike that any hiker can tick off. It packs a lot into a short walk and gives a glimpse into the man-versus-wild history of Alaska. It begins at a fish hatchery, ends at a dam, and runs along both a road for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the former route of a copper mining operation that used a five-mile-long aerial tramway to move ore to the port. From the lake however, the view encompasses the wild—a panorama taking in the Chugach’s glaciers and the steep peaks surrounding the fjord. All that makes the hike a shot of Valdez distilled.
When to Go: Summer, when long, warm days give you the opportunity to hike at your leisure
About Grylls: In his survivalist show Man vs. Wild, Bear Grylls doesn’t spend much time on trails—he’s usually too busy trying to forage for something to eat or put up a bushcraft shelter. The show might inject a bit more drama into a sojourn than the usual hiker experiences, even on an epic jaunt, but that’s what makes it compelling, and it has earned Grylls his own line of survival gear products, including his own Gerber Bear Grylls Ultimate Fixed Blade Knife. Grylls has always dreamed big in the outdoors, summiting Everest at 23 years old and later crossing the Arctic Ocean in an inflatable raft. The former British Special Air Service soldier is also the youngest Chief Scout of the British Scout Association, sharing his passion for the wild and expedition with 400,000 youths in the U.K.
Overland Track in Tasmania, Australia
Photograph by Matthieu Paley, Corbis
Hiker: Cheryl Strayed, author
In Her Words
The Overland Track in Tasmania, Australia. It's a 40- to 50-mile-long trail (depending on where you finish) that goes through some of the wildest and most beautiful natural terrain on the planet (or so I hear). The trail is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Plus, it's in Tasmania! I've always wanted to go there. —Cheryl Strayed
Length: 40 miles (51 miles with the hike around Lake St. Clair)
The Details: Tasmania is a living ecological laboratory. Nearly half of Australia’s southern island state is protected. It’s home to a menagerie of famed wildlife, including the wombat, platypus, and, of course, Tasmanian devil, the largest carnivorous marsupial on the planet. It’s also an incredibly diverse landscape, encompassing everything from highland mountains to eucalyptus groves to rain forest.
Though shorter than many great thru-hikes, the Overland Track packs a big punch. The trail delves straight into the biodiverse wildlands of Cradle Mountain–Lake St. Clair National Park. It starts with a gut-busting climb up into the most mountainous highlands of the island before rambling by alpine lakes and grasslands, then diving down into the rain forest.
The trail and surrounding park are carefully managed by Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, who break it down into a six-day event. Slow for some, but the agency’s plan may be the best way to savor the trail, since it includes extra-credit side trips such as a scramble up Tasmania’s highest peak, 5,305-foot Mount Ossa. And it’s easy to pack light since a hut system on the trail means you don’t need a tent. Many hikers also tack on the worthwhile hike around Lake St. Clair—Australia’s deepest lake—to end the hike instead of riding a ferry across to the finish.
When to Go: Tasmania Parks and Wildlife requires hikers to book reservations and travel north to south during the prime season of October 1 and May 31. The weather can be rough in winter but you are free to hike as you please.
About Strayed: Cheryl Strayed began as the most unlikely hiker in this group. When she first headed out to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail—as an escape from the death of her mother, divorce, and a battle with heroin—she was woefully unprepared. So much so, in fact, that she began to walk with a pack she could barely heft and boots that fit her so badly that they shredded her feet. Strayed persevered, however, and finished 1,100 miles of the PCT a toughened hiking veteran. She recorded that experience in her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012), which hit number one on the New York Times best-seller list not just for its deft and witty depiction of the rigors of a long-distance hike, but more so for the way it reveals a woman evolving, conquering her demons, and finding meaning by putting her boots to the dirt.
Oregon Desert Trail
Photograph by Jeremy Fox, ONDA
Hiker: Sage Clegg, thru-hiking record holder and outdoor educator
In Her Words
My list of top trails includes some official trails and routes, but it also includes many conceptual routes, like a loop around Montana that connects my favorite places. This summer, I will become the first person to thru-hike the brand-new, 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail (ODT). People always say deserts are wasteland, but I don't see them that way at all. Deserts are filled with creatures who have a zest for life, and I want to go spend time with them. Of course, my truly epic dream route would be to extend the ODT to meet with the Idaho Centennial Trail, to the Pacific Northwest Trail, to the Pacific Crest Trail, and walk down from the Cascades back to my door in Bend, a Pacific Northwest Dryside Loop. I don't know if I will ever turn this route into reality, but it has crept into my mind. —Sage Clegg
Length: 750 miles
The Details: The Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) was designed not so much as a thru-route but as a grand tour of the little visited but grand landscapes of Oregon’s eastern desert. At a lengthy 750 miles, the trail just scratches the surface of the largest desert in the U.S., the cold, sparsely populated sage steppes of the 190,000-square-mile Great Basin Desert that stretches into Idaho, Nevada, California, and Utah.
The ODT is the brainchild of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. Volunteers and staff from the small grassroots environmental organization made their dream of showcasing eastern Oregon’s wonders when they pieced together existing trails, jeep tracks, and overland routes through vast, dry stretches of mostly Bureau of Management lands, including numerous Wilderness Study Areas whose protection status is still up in the air.
Indeed, it is not a wasteland. The trail has a subtle beauty as it passes through endless stands of big basin and Wyoming sagebrush that provide habitat for songbirds and lekking areas for sage grouse as well as a riot of springtime wildflowers, some of them found only here.
The desert shelters rock blinds and other evidence of historic native tribes and even ancient Clovis cultures who once hunted here. It crosses the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and winds under the looming mass of 9,733-foot-tall, 50-mile-long Steens Mountain.
But the most dramatic section may be the final miles in the Owyhee Canyonlands, a wilderness of soaring rhyolite canyon walls where the Yellowstone hot spot caldera exploded in a fury of magma 13.8 million to 12 million years ago before it slowly shifted east to its present location under the park.
It’s not an easy trail to complete, either. Despite stops in outpost towns like Fields and Rome, there are long stretches without water or the chance to resupply. Part of Clegg’s mission on the first hike of the new trail is to report on just how it works as a thru-hike and help ONDA improve it for future visitors. Though little of the desert is protected, it makes up a section of the largest roadless area in the continental United States, 1.9 million acres of untouched land spanning Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada.
When to Go: The side seasons of spring and fall. The sage steppes of the Great Basin Desert can be frigid and snowy in winter, and summer is a tough time to find water.
About Clegg: As a wildlife biologist, Sage Clegg spends a good part of the year in the field, most recently studying desert tortoises in California’s Mojave Desert. But in summer 2013 she will be exploring the cold desert of Oregon’s Great Basin.
Clegg is more than qualified for the trip—she holds the women’s speed record for completing the big three thru-hikes in the U.S. (the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Coast Trail), knocking out that triple crown of roughly 8,000 miles and a million vertical feet of elevation gain in just under 18 months. In 2011, she created her own route across California, the 1,200-mile Japhy Ryder Route from Death Valley to the Lost Coast. Her main objective on the ODT is not to beef up her hard-core hiking chops, however, but instead to draw attention to one of the last great untouched cores of wild lands in the Lower 48.
MacLehose Trail, New Territories, Hong Kong
Photograph courtesy Hong Kong Tourism Board
Hiker: M. John Fayhee, writer and editor
In His Words
I heard about this trail as a youngster from my Uncle Jack, a retired sergeant major in the British Army. The mountain footpaths that were eventually spliced together to make a continuously marked proper trail had been used forever for fitness competitions between the various national components of the British Army. Uncle Jack, as macho a person as has ever been bred, actually graciously deferred to the Gurkhas of Nepal when he described the MacLehose. He stated that, tough as he and "his lads" were, they could not hold a candle to the famed Gurkhas. I hiked this trail in 1987 over the course of a week and it kicked my ass. —M. John Fayhee
Length: 62 miles
The Details: While Hong Kong may be one of the most densely populated places on the planet, the surrounding New Territories are rural and quiet—and they are tough country to hike. The MacLehose Trail makes constant, grueling 1,000-plus-foot descents followed immediately by ascents along the fingers of ridgetops, making it more challenging than its mileage suggests.
The trail is broken down into ten sections, starting at the stunning eastern beaches before climbing up into tropical mountains, where monkeys chatter from the branches—watch out for cobras—and winding past 3,140-foot Tai Mo Shan, the highest peak in the area. It usually takes five to six days to complete the trail, which has been made a bit easier since the days of the Gurkhas with stone steps and paths and first-come-first-serve free campgrounds. Occasional food vendors offer more comfort along the way. When you are done, take a cab back to a hotel in the metropolis.
When to Go: Winter (November-March) is best since summer is very humid.
About Fayhee: Besides being an expert on the fine arts of smoking cigars and occupying a barstool, author M. John Fayhee has spent a lot of time walking across the planet and observing nature and the humans who visit it. The former contributing editor at Backpacker and author of Smoke Signals: Wayward Journeys Through the Old Heart of the New West (Raven's Eye Press, 2012) was also the longtime editor of the Mountain Gazette, where he built up a faithful tribe of mountain-town followers who eagerly awaited his monthly columns. An unassuming heir to Henry Thoreau, Edward Abbey, and Hunter S. Thompson, Fayhee has found inspiration on trails from Mexico's Copper Canyon to the Rockies’ Continental Divide, but his bucket list trail is in one of the world's largest cities.
The Long Range Traverse, Newfoundland, Canada
Photograph by Keith Payne
Hiker: Peter Potterfield, author and adventurer
In His Words
I’m a pretty jaded guy, but I would go with the Long Range Traverse in Newfoundland. The hike is in the Long Range Mountains near the Gulf of St. Lawrence along Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, with cliffs nearly the height of El Capitan that tower above the sea. To follow the crest makes an unforgettable journey from the fjord of Western Brook Pond to Gros Morne Mountain, one of the highest in Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s a route you have to earn: 25 miles by map and compass (there are no trails here) through an impressive wilderness populated mostly by moose and caribou—but not Homo sapiens. The payoff is genuine solitude, pristine camps, and the joy of traveling untrammeled backcountry in Canada’s most out-there province. —Peter Potterfield
Length: Nearly 25 miles
The Details: This trail is not a trail at all. It is a romp across the wilds of Gros Morne National Park, a chunk of land that time forgot on the North Atlantic seaboard. It is well organized and strictly managed, however, with designated camp spots that break the trip down into a six-day adventure. The rules work in your favor—you may share one of those campsites with moose, caribou, or black bear as you trek over tundra and down to hidden lakes, but you won’t run into many other people. As Potterfield points out, the high point is the high point—2,644-foot Gros Morne Mountain, which lords over the rocks of Newfoundland and the waves of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
When to Go: July through September. Hikers must obtain permits through Parks Canada.
About Potterfield: Few people can claim to have logged as much time on the trail as Peter Potterfield. The author of Classic Hikes of the World (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005) and Classic Hikes of North America (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012) and a frequent contributor here at National Geographic Adventure, Potterfield has put his soles to the dirt of the most iconic pathways on the planet as well as some obscure routes. He is currently touring and speaking about his adventures—with stops at epic hiker-friendly haunts like New York’s Explorers Club—and planning his next big trip.
The Ancascocha Trail, Peru
Photograph by Didrik Johnck
Hiker: Erik Weihenmayer, blind adventurer and mountaineer
In His Words
The Ancascocha Trail in the Peruvian Andes is a spectacular trail that remains off the beaten path even given its close proximity to the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
I hiked it with a group of 18 teenagers from the U.S.—nine of the students were blind or visually impaired and nine were sighted, with the sighted guiding the blind. Around the middle of the trek we camped for a full day and night at the remote mountain community of Chillipahua, where we partook in a game of soccer with the village kids (our blind participants used a soccer ball with a plastic bag over it in order to hear it roll). We were all out of breath, since the village is at 12,000 feet. We also painted a schoolhouse alongside community members, and the locals celebrated our stay with a traditional meal: sheep and vegetables cooked under hot rocks buried in the ground.
When we all got to the Gateway of the Sun, above the World Heritage site of Machu Picchu, I remember the sighted kids describing the incredible view looking into this ancient city of rock, with much more of the ruins still buried under jungle vegetation. —Erik Weihenmayer
Length: 19-mile hike from Parpishu to Camicancha (plus bus and train ride to Machu Picchu)
The Details: The Inca Trail has fallen off most best-of lists because it is just too crowded, but the ruins of Machu Picchu—which poet Pablo Neruda praised as “madre de piedra, espuma de los cóndores” (“mother of stone, spume of condors”)—and the surrounding passes and peaks of the Andes should remain on any bucket list.
Enter Weihenmayer’s choice: the Ancascocha Trek (often called the Super Inca Trail or even the Hidden Inca Trail), a far more strenuous, yet less traveled and more rewarding path. The trek takes roughly five or six days wandering through traditional villages like Chillipahua and its namesake Ancascocha at 12,795 feet. Along the way, it humps over big passes, including a high point of roughly 16,000 feet on Inca Chiriaska, and takes in views of towering 20,551-foot Salcantay.
Many local guide companies have added the “Hidden” Inca Trail to itineraries, so take advantage of their logistical planning but go before the masses catch on. One note, the trail doesn’t actually end at Machu Picchu; you need to hop a short bus and train ride to get there, but you won’t care much after the experience of solitude in the high Andes.
When to Go: Spring (April-May) and fall (September-October) are best, avoiding the winter storms and minimizing the hordes of tourists that arrive at Machu Picchu in summer.
About Weihenmayer: In 2001, Erik Weihenmayer summited Mount Everest—he is the first and only blind person to stand atop the tallest peak. But that climb was just one of many accomplishments claimed by the Colorado-based adventurer, who lost his sight due to a degenerative disease at age 13. Weihenmayer, who is accompanied by a partner on his adventures, has since climbed the remaining highest peaks on every continent, run marathons, and competed in adventure races and reality TV shows. He is currently training to kayak the Grand Canyon. Weihenmayer also helps other blind, deaf, and hard-of-hearing people achieve outdoor dreams through Leading the Way, an arm of the nonprofit No Barriers USA.
About the Writer
Boulder, Colorado-based writer Doug Schnitzspahn knows trails. He spent six seasons building and maintaining them while working for the U.S. Forest Service in Montana and Idaho, and as a freelance writer and explorer he has checked off some of the hikes included here like Iceland’s Laugavegur and New Hampshire’s Franconia Ridge. He has his sights set on Bhutan’s Snowman Trek. He is also the editor in chief of Elevation Outdoors and Mountain Gazette magazines.